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2020 Sees Higher Education Admissions Scandal, Visa Challenges for International Students

FILE- Students walk on the Stanford University campus in Santa Clara, Calif., March 14, 2019.
FILE- Students walk on the Stanford University campus in Santa Clara, Calif., March 14, 2019.

The coronavirus pandemic led to more than 1.7 million deaths and 79 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the virus — and international students around the world largely escaped health affects but were disrupted in their studies.

Higher education in the United States also was roiled by a huge admissions scandal and immigration restrictions, which punctuated a chaotic and anxiety-ridden year.

The issues:

College admissions scandal

Nearly three dozen parents, including "Full House" actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, were sentenced in a high-profile college admissions scandal that revealed wealthy parents buying their children's way into college.

The family of Yusi "Molly" Zhao, who was admitted to the sailing program at Stanford University in 2017, paid to get their daughter into the highly selective school. The family of another student, Sherry Guo, paid $1.2 million to assist in her entry to Yale University in Connecticut.

Another parent, Xiaoning Sui of Surrey, British Columbia, was sentenced to five months and ordered to pay a fine of $250,000 in addition to forfeiting the $400,000 she paid to William "Rick" Singer, who facilitated the admissions arrangements.

Singer pleaded guilty to accepting more than $25 million for connecting parents and their children with test administrators and college coaches.

Staff from several universities were involved in the case, such as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, University of California Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. But the U.S. Justice Department deemed the schools were unaware of the staff activity and were nonparticipants in the bribery.

China connections

The January arrest of a Harvard professor who is a pioneer in nanoscience shed light on relationships between American brain power, the Chinese government and funding between the two that involves intellectual property theft.

FILE - Harvard University professor Charles Lieber is surrounded by reporters as he leaves the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston, Jan. 30, 2020.
FILE - Harvard University professor Charles Lieber is surrounded by reporters as he leaves the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston, Jan. 30, 2020.

Charles Lieber, head of Harvard University's chemistry department and a world leader in nanoscience, was charged with lying about receiving funding from Chinese research agencies. Lieber was simultaneously receiving research funding from the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health.

The U.S. government alleges that Lieber hid being paid up to $50,000 a month by the Chinese government. He also received more than $1.5 million to create a research lab at Wuhan University of Technology in China, according to court documents.

Lieber denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty to the charges in July.

In 2020, the U.S. pursued several cases against researchers and educators, like Lieber, who had connections with the Chinese government or Chinese companies.

Visa challenges

The Trump administration issued several changes regarding immigration and modifications that affected the stability of student visas throughout the year.

In July, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a rule that would require international students in the U.S. to attend some classes in person — not exclusively online — or risk deportation during the pandemic.

ICE rescinded the rule after Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against the U.S. with signatures of support from more than 200 U.S. universities.

Affirmative action lawsuits

A federal appeals court ruled that Harvard University does not discriminate against Asian American applicants after a group accused the university of imposing a "racial penalty" on Asian Americans.

Harvard University said an applicant's race is only one factor in its "holistic" admissions process and denied any discrimination.

Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit that aims to eliminate the use of race in college admissions, filed the lawsuit in 2014, and has failed in other attempts to sue universities on the grounds of unfair admissions.

The youth vote

The youth vote, especially young voters of color, turned out in record numbers to support President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the 2020 presidential elections.

Among the nearly 240 million eligible voters in the U.S., about 20% were 18- to 29-year-olds, and they favored Biden over President Donald Trump by 61% to 36%, according to data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

Top issues for young voters included COVID-19, health care, race relations and climate change, according to CIRCLE polls. Gun violence and student loan debt were also key issues that swayed their choice to choose the next president.

2020 Open Doors report

New enrollment of international students dropped 43% at the start of the 2020-2021 academic year because of COVID-19, according to an annual report. Nearly 40,000 students — mostly incoming freshmen — deferred enrollment to a future term at 90% of U.S. institutions.

The data were compiled and reported by the Institute for International Education and published in its annual Open Doors report about international students in the U.S. It is funded by the U.S. Department of State, which issues visas to students and visitors participating in educational or vocational training.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators found that the 2019-2020 international enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities accounted for $38.7 billion, a drop of $1.8 billion – a 4.4% decrease – from the previous year.

It was the first time that the dollar amount international students contribute to U.S. colleges and universities dropped in 20 years, NAFSA reported.

The coronavirus pandemic also left U.S. colleges and universities reeling in 2020.

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Senator draws attention to universities that haven’t returned remains

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, speaks with reporters as he walks to a vote on Capitol Hill, Sept. 6, 2023 in Washington.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, speaks with reporters as he walks to a vote on Capitol Hill, Sept. 6, 2023 in Washington.

More than 70 U.S. universities continue to hold human remains taken from Native American burial sites, although those remains were supposed to be returned 30 years ago.

Jennifer Bendery writes in Huffington Post that one senator has been using his position in an attempt to shame universities into returning remains and artifacts. (April 2024)

COVID forced one international student to go hungry

FILE - Masked students walk to the COVID-19 vaccination site at the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium on the Jackson State University campus in Jackson, Miss., July 27, 2021.
FILE - Masked students walk to the COVID-19 vaccination site at the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium on the Jackson State University campus in Jackson, Miss., July 27, 2021.

When Samantha (not her real name) enrolled in community college in the U.S., her family at home in South Africa scrimped and saved to support her.

But the COVID-19 pandemic hurt the family’s finances, and at one point Samantha had four on-campus jobs just to make ends meet. Many in the U.S. believe international students are wealthy sources of funding for universities, but stories like Samantha’s suggest otherwise.

Andrea Gutierrez reports for The World. (March 2024)

Tips for paying for a STEM degree as an international student

FILE - FILE - A visitor to the 21st China Beijing International High-tech Expo looks at a computer chip through the microscope displayed by the Tsinghua Unigroup project in Beijing, on May 17, 2018.
FILE - FILE - A visitor to the 21st China Beijing International High-tech Expo looks at a computer chip through the microscope displayed by the Tsinghua Unigroup project in Beijing, on May 17, 2018.

For US News & World Report, Melanie Lockert describes how to calculate the cost of a STEM degree, and where to find funding. (March 2024)

NAIA all but bans its transgender college athletes from women's sports

FILE - NAIA women’s basketball players gather after a game in St. Louis, Feb. 22, 2024. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, said Monday that transgender athletes would be all but banned from women's sports.
FILE - NAIA women’s basketball players gather after a game in St. Louis, Feb. 22, 2024. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, said Monday that transgender athletes would be all but banned from women's sports.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, announced a policy Monday that all but bans transgender athletes from competing in women's sports.

The NAIA's Council of Presidents approved the policy in a 20-0 vote. The NAIA, which oversees some 83,000 athletes at schools across the country, is believed to be the first college sports organization to take such a step.

According to the transgender participation policy, all athletes may participate in NAIA-sponsored male sports but only athletes whose biological sex assigned at birth is female and have not begun hormone therapy will be allowed to participate in women's sports.

A student who has begun hormone therapy may participate in activities such as workouts, practices and team activities, but not in interscholastic competition.

"With the exception of competitive cheer and competitive dance, the NAIA created separate categories for male and female participants," the NAIA said. "Each NAIA sport includes some combination of strength, speed and stamina, providing competitive advantages for male student-athletes. As a result, the NAIA policy for transgender student-athletes applies to all sports except for competitive cheer and competitive dance, which are open to all students."

There is no known number of transgender athletes at the high school and college levels, though it is believed to be small. The topic has become a hot-button issue for those for and against transgender athletes competing on girls' and women's sports teams.

At least 24 states have laws barring transgender women and girls from competing in certain women's or girls sports competitions. Last month, more than a dozen current and former college athletes filed a federal lawsuit against the NCAA, accusing the sports governing body for more than 500,000 athletes of violating their rights by allowing transgender women to compete in women's sports.

The Biden administration originally planned to release a new federal Title IX rule — the law forbids discrimination based on sex in education — addressing both campus sexual assault and transgender athletes. But earlier this year, the department decided to split them into separate rules, and the athletics rule now remains in limbo even as the sexual assault policy moves forward.

Hours after the NAIA announcement, the NCAA released a statement: "College sports are the premier stage for women's sports in America and the NCAA will continue to promote Title IX, make unprecedented investments in women's sports and ensure fair competition for all student-athletes in all NCAA championships."

The NCAA has had a policy for transgender athlete participation in place since 2010, which called for one year of testosterone suppression treatment and documented testosterone levels submitted before championship competitions. In 2022, the NCAA revised its policies on transgender athlete participation in an attempt to align with national sport governing bodies, following the lead of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

The three-phase implementation of the policy included a continuation of the 2010 policy, requiring transgender women to be on hormone replacement therapy for at least one year, plus the submission of a hormone-level test before the start of both the regular season and championship events.

The third phase adds national and international sport governing body standards to the NCAA's policy and is scheduled to be implemented for the 2024-25 school year on August 1.

There are some 15.3 million public high school students in the United States and a 2019 study by the CDC estimated 1.8% of them — about 275,000 — are transgender. The number of athletes within that group is much smaller; a 2017 survey by Human Rights Campaign suggested fewer than 15% of all transgender boys and transgender girls play sports.

The number of NAIA transgender athletes would be far smaller.

Humanities degrees are tougher sell for international students 

FILE - People walk near the campus center at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., Dec. 9, 2013.
FILE - People walk near the campus center at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., Dec. 9, 2013.

That’s the argument of one Princeton undergraduate from South Korea.

OPT, the government program that allows college students to work in the US for a short time after graduation without securing a work visa, is biased toward STEM degree holders.

As a result, many international students forego humanities, or choose tech or consulting jobs when their passions lie elsewhere.

Read Siyeon Lee’s argument in the Princetonian. (March 2024)

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